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U. Penn students question labor rights sit-in's effect

From U-Wire
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 15, 2000
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PHILADELPHIA-Banners and posters with anti-sweatshop messages are hung across the campus. Ben Franklin has a protest sign hung around his neck. Students are handing out stickers that read: "I support United Students Against Sweatshops."

The University of Pennsylvania campus is slowly starting to take notice of the first major social protest on campus in decades.

While many student groups, including the United Minorities Council, have come out in support of the USAS sit-in at College Hall, several - notably the Undergraduate Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly - have remained mum.

And student reactions to the protest that began on Feb. 7 have been mixed. Some admitted that they were simply uninformed about the issue, while others offered support to the group. Still others flatly criticized the effort.

"I think (the sit-in) is a good idea," said business and engineering freshman Ahsim Khan. "I wish I had the time to help them out with their cause."

But arts and sciences freshman Jonathon Frerichs disagreed.

"They're hypocrites," he said. "Half of their clothing was made in sweatshops."

And one business junior added, "Things have gotten out of hand. They have the task force, now they just want (media) attention."

Still, on a campus often regarded as apathetic, some students commended USAS for bringing the issue of sweatshop labor to the forefront.

USAS wants Rodin to pull out of the current monitoring organization for University-logo apparel, the Free Labor Association. The group has repeatedly argued that the FLA is ineffective and has asked Penn to join the Worker Rights Consortium instead.

"They're one of the stronger activist groups here. They have a lot of groups supporting them," said arts and sciences freshman Elena Fortes, noting the political apathy usually present on campus.

Student groups across campus have taken notice of the movement, many of them hanging banners on Locust Walk and signs in Rodin's office pledging their support.

To date, 28 student organizations have pledged their full support to the USAS sit-in, ranging from student governing bodies to special interest clubs.

Yesterday, the UMC voted to offer support to the sit-in and sent Rodin a letter outlining their decision.

Arts and sciences junior Archana Jayaram, the UMC's political chairwoman, said the UMC also decided to support USAS because many sweatshop workers are minorities.

"Sweatshop issues are issues of people of color in general, so we feel we have a vested interest," she said, "because we represent people who are historically oppressed."

Arts and sciences junior Anita Patel, the UMC vice chairwoman, said the UMC itself was founded because of a protest in 1978 by minority students concerned about university budget cuts that would affect minority programs.

"We feel their actions are fully reasonable and just," she said.

Meanwhile, the Undergraduate Assembly has also been supportive of the USAS cause, but has refused to comment specifically on the sit-in.

Arts and sciences senior and Undergraduate Assembly chairman Michael Silver said the Executive Board will discuss the position the group would take regarding the sit-in at a meeting today.

And GAPSA made a statement at Wednesday's University Council meeting, saying that it supports the efforts made by USAS to defend human rights, but would not endorse the immediate withdrawal from the FLA until more information was disclosed.

Various other campus organizations have come out in support of the sit-in.

Arts and sciences sophomore Ellie Lobovits, co-chair of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, said her group supported USAS because sweatshops employed a majority of female workers.

"It's a very big women's issue," she said. "Ninety percent of sweatshop labor is young girls and young women."

She added that the FMLA also wanted to show the university that the sweatshop issue had wider support than from only the members of USAS.

"It's not just 13 people sitting in," she said. "There are other people on campus in support."

"I think that the administration has a tendency to ignore anything that doesn't affect (its) image," Arts and sciences senior and co-chair of the FMLA Kimberly Junod said. "To get something done, you need to do something that gets media attention - things work really slowly at Penn."

Still, students remained unconvinced that this protest was the best idea.

"I think it's worthwhile that people are focusing their energies, but I hope the people involved really know what it's about," said engineering sophomore Amanda Spethman.

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